Inside The Triangle
Today was one of those days you feel your mind wrapping with a special piece of memory and labeling it, “to be opened when I am old.” I arrived last night in Chiang Rai under the cover of darkness and left early this morning. I headed north across the Mae Kok river and into the mountains bordering Burma and Laos. The national borders are permeable in this area, pierced by both forests and mountains. Consequently, the opium business flourished and the traders employing gold as their common currency, lent the region its infamous moniker; the Golden Triangle. Today, the opium trade on the Thai side of the border has faded away, though the police still arrest traffickers bringing in morphine-based amphetamines from Burma. The loose borders have also allowed nomadic tribes to make these mountains their temporary home. One of Thailand’s largest hill tribes, the Akha arrived here at the end of the nineteenth century. In recent years they have been joined by the Karen, fleeing from persecution in neighboring Burma.
The first village I entered today was predominantly Karen. The 9 families I met had just arrived in the area 8 months ago. I saw two subgroups within the Karen, the Padong and, as the Thai call them, “the shortnecks.” The Padong are striking for the practice among the women of wearing a coil of copper around their necks. In the Padong tradition, a long neck is considered very beautiful. The copper coils, which can weigh between 8 and 15 pounds, are also believed by the Padong to protect them from Tiger attack in the jungle. Each year, until she is married, a Padong woman earns an extra ring and a new coil containing the extra ring is fashioned. The practice has been dying out, but the increased interest of tourists has maintained the tradition for now. The “shortneck” Karen do not wear coils but instead distinctive large copper cylinders inserted in their ear lobes. The Akha I met did not have any body augmentation, but wore a distinctive headdress adorned with bells and plates of silver. There seemed to be no signs of animosity between the Akha and the Karen, the two worked side by side, the Karen almost exclusively weaving while the Akha seemed focused on silverwork.
It’s the dry season now and the surrounding land seemed parched and thirsty. It will be another 3 months until the rains come and this whole area will become unrecognizable beneath blankets of lush green vegetation. For now, the sole respite is the cool air slowly falling down the mountain through the small gardens of banana and papaya. I felt a beautiful quiet unthinking peace in this tiny collection of straw houses. Cats slept coiled up like a pair of warm socks while the women weaved and smoked tobacco. Young girls of five or six made fake looms in the brush and pretended to weave like their mothers. In reality of course, uncertainty was in the air and just beneath the surface. The slash and burn forest clearance is destroying the ecosystem. The initial years, during which the virgin forest soil produces abundant yields, soon pass. The earth grows tired and, devoid of tree cover, is washed down into the valley. The people move on. For the Karen there are additional concerns. Encroachments by the Burmese Army into Thailand are not unknown and just this week a Thai soldier was shot by the Burmese army. They presumed he was a Karen. Modernity ekes its way up from the lowlands offering the tribes either education and t-shirts or the role of professionally modeling the way they were. But this is yesterday and tomorrow. Today was a beautiful day spent with a gentle people and I was overwhelmed by a sense of undeserved privilege to have witnessed it all before it disappears forever.